Biomimicry: an innovative approach to design, systems and structures that is inspired by nature. By focussing on time-tested biological structures, we can often – but, as you will see, not always! – find sustainable solutions for a technological world.
Doris Sung, founder of dO|Su Studio Architecture and professor at the University of Southern California, is passionate about nature and its role influencing architecture in a modern world. Once a keen biology student, she now embraces the natural world in the hope of creating smart solutions to current issues.
Sung has been inspired by the human body and its ability to constantly regulate body temperature: when we’re hot, we secrete sweat to evaporate, thus, cooling the body, and when we’re cold the hairs on our skin stand on end, trapping warmth. Sung wants buildings to become as efficient, constantly regulating temperature through smart structure. In a world where buildings are becoming increasingly dependent on air conditioning, Sung argues that thermobimetals could be the answer to an energy-wasting problem.
Thermobimetals are the result of the lamination of two metals that expand at different temperatures and in different conditions. This allows the material to work in a unique way: when heated, one side will expand faster than the other and the metal with curl. Sung believes that this curling action can be used to create a dynamic building that can shade from the midday sun whilst also allowing ventilation by allowing hot air to escape.
To test this theory, Sung and her team successfully created the ‘Armoured Corset’, which was shown in the WUHO Gallery, California in 2010. To allow ultimate flexibility, the ‘Armoured Corset’ is made of small sheets of nickel-magnesium thermobimetal and is a small scale example of the reactive ‘skin’ Sung hopes to see on buildings in the future.
Inspiration does not just come from human biology, it also comes from the animal kingdom. The radiant colour of some morpho butterfly’s wings is not due to pigmentation, as one might assume; it is, in fact, a result of structural colourisation. Butterfly wings are transparent but have miniscule scales that reflect light and create dazzling colours.
These vivid, crisp colours are desired by technology companies competing in a frenetic device market, where consumers are opting for the crispest visuals. It is believed that biomorphic mineralisation can make this possible; the photonic structures of the butterfly wing can thus be replicated using metal oxides or metal alkoxides, such as titanium sulfate, zirconium oxide, and aluminium oxide.
Qualcomm, a self-proclaimed world leader in 3G and next-generation mobile technologies, hoped to replicate these photonic structures in their Mirasol screens through an Interometric Modulator Display (IMOD).
James Chou, Qualcomm’s Panel Manufacturing VP, was particularly adamant that IMOD technology was a game changer, and that it needed to be on the market. However, his dream fell short of reality and the colours were washed-out. We cannot rule IMOD technology out yet, though: Apple have been rumoured to have taken over an old Qualcomm lab, working quietly to advance IMOD technology – the morpho butterfly may change the world yet!